Center and Centrality

If the metalanguage of literacy is both the equivalent and the vehicle of the imperium in imperio, the ethical practice that follows is reducing the metalinguistic dimension of language to its most minimal, which is the necessity that any use of language reference, iterate and modify some other use. The minimal metalanguage would simply be showing rather than concealing this dependence on differential repetition. Now it is possible to articulate the (meta)linguistic problem with the thought of the center. The way to do this is to address a problem in centered thinking that I have alluded to (and somewhat more) on a few occasions (it could hardly be completely avoided) but have not addressed directly and in a sustained way: the distinction and relation between the desired and ultimately consumed central object, and the subsisting center, which remains in the memory and praxis of the group subsequent to the event itself. It is the imagined central object, or, to borrow Jacques Lacan’s orthographic practice, the Object, that is the target of the group’s resentment and the source of its newly discovered/created communal being.

We can imagine a very minimal difference between the two, for starters. We could hypothesize that the sign issued on the originary scene would guide the group through its consumption of the object (the sparagmos) by serving, in that frenzied feast, to maintain sufficient order so as to prevent a new violent outbreak. Once the meal is completed, the participants might just walk away and return to their pre-human hominid existence—it’s possible that the scene was forgotten many times before it finally “took.” What would have made it “take” would have been, I would suggest, a final issuance of the sign, gesturing toward the inedible remains of the animal, which would have completed or “closed” or “sealed” the event as an event. More of a metonymy than a metaphor, this representation of the continuity of the relation between margin and center would have inscribed the sign in the group’s memory. Nothing might change in their everyday interactions for a while, but every fresh kill would re-ignite the same mimetic crisis and call forth the remembered sign. The Object, or centrality beyond center, would be nothing more than this memory and the maintenance of the unity of the repeated event.

And we can imagine a maximal difference between the two. When the tiniest object, event, or gesture can take on enormous, maybe even world-historical significance, we have the maximal difference between the center, some point on which attention converges, and centrality, or the capacities and supports that articulate that point along with numerous others to a distant social center. Let’s take, for example, the question much discussed on the American right, whether the Iran “deal” is, in fact, a “deal,” and, if so, between which entities—the Obama Administration and Ayatollah Khamenei, or the United States and Iran. In the end, there is something we could look at, physically direct our attention towards: specific language in a document, the actual signatures of specific, well known people—signatures that could be “authenticated” by handwriting experts (who have themselves been “certified” by experts at “recognized” institutions, etc.). But the fact that people (and it would be carefully selected people) would look carefully at such things is due to the various international political protocols and domestic legal traditions and practices in the US and Iran and that would make such looking meaningful. The object here is some scribbles on a piece of paper; the Object is the alignment of power that follows the ascertaining of international “legitimacy,” which in turn references an entire history of “legitimacy.”

It’s clear that the maximal difference between center and centrality, object and Object, is the mark of a more civilized order. We can also see all the potential for degeneration and de-civilization in this distance. This potential lies in the possibility of making the abstracted norms sites of power struggle. Linguistic metalanguage (beginning, it can’t be stressed enough, with writing and the creation of alphabets, grammar, and diacritical marks) results from the study of language and represents the linguistic elements required for a workable writing system. In the process it shapes language—for example, a literate population will speak in more standardized and grammatically correct sentences than a non-literate population. (A non-literate population won’t even understand what a grammatical error is.) For subsequent metalanguages, predicated upon print culture and literacy, like philosophy, literature, and eventually the social sciences, such features as correct grammar and the logic developed out of it also seem to be “in” language, and therefore in the language users themselves: they come to “naturally” represent these cognitive “skills” and “capacities” as “in” the individual (like Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device, somehow planted in the brain). As a result, that such features are dependent on language can be forgotten, and cognition can be spoken of as if language were just an incidental means of representing cognitive activity already going on. Within the disciplinary and empowered metalanguages, then, the objects of thought and praxis are constructs of the metalanguage itself.

The metalanguages acquire their power by representing and enframing human and social “attributes.” History and tradition are displaced from the scene, even in the disciplines devoted to their study: what ends up getting studied is the development of the attributes of the human that the disciplinary metalanguages have singled out and made available for study and transformation. This is the equivalent of the imperium in imperio: a vast body of disciplinary knowledge that Power cannot help but draw upon and use to frame its own means and ends. We have a center, then, that obscures centrality—you could say I’m putting Heidegger’s notion of the “forgetting of Being” in originary and absolutist terms. The center is now whatever can be attended to—defined, treated, assessed, categorized, manipulated—by disciplinary metalanguages. There is no centrality because those disciplinary metalanguages cannot attend to themselves, which is to say their origins. Sociology cannot say why there is such a thing as society; psychology why there is a “psyche” or mind; linguistics why there is language; anthropology why there is Man, or men; economics why there is exchange and money, and so on. A simulated “human being” is projected onto a screen as a placeholder for the attributes identified by the discipline.

What writing represents are scenes and events of language, not “language” itself. Along with writing, scenes and events of pedagogy are constructed—a text comes prepared to serve as the source of new texts, oral and written. A text is always a pretext. Language learning is lifelong—entering a new disciplinary space is learning a new language. The way you learn a language is to repeat what speakers of that language say, get it wrong a lot of times, and finally start to get it right. To use a word mistakenly is to overlay one rule or imagined context with another—the word, phrase, sentence or discourse you are using works in some other context you are familiar with, and you assumed that context could be transposed onto the one shared by speakers of that language. Language comes in chunks that are transportable—we’re using the same words and expressions as English language speakers have been for centuries, often in very similar ways—but also very site specific: bits of language are shaped for specific uses.

In the relation between the mistake and the accepted use lies the relation between center and centrality. “Mistake” is a very broad concept: the way a lot of philosophers use the word “object” would be mistaken in a lot of ordinary situations. It would make the users in those situations laugh, just as philosophers might laugh at an untutored use of the word. It is in such instances that we demonstrate to ourselves that language is in its shared use, not in the things and qualities in the world it purports to refer to. There is reference, but we refer, language doesn’t. So, the language/metalanguage distinction is displaced by the center/centrality relation, which presents as the differing degrees and modes of mistakenness identified by a group of users. Not all mistakes are equal, which is to say not all of them are equally revelatory of the centrality of the center. Some mistakes point more pointedly to the origins of the use of a particular “chunk” wherein centrality is obscured by a new center.

There’s no need to advocate that people deliberately make mistakes (if you do it deliberately, is it still a mistake?). It will happen whenever we press on those points in a discourse where the discourse seems to hang together by an equivalence between an “attribute” or “quality” and a metalinguistic concept. If you try to dislodge such concepts from their representational relation to an inner substance, you cannot but use them mistakenly. I certainly am advocating lots of “wild” theorizing, with abductions and hypotheses too big for the “data set” they draw upon. But also innovative writing, in particular writing that infiltrates the standard forms and disciplines, revealing their bureaucratic origins and ends, along with the modes of inquiry they’ve made impossible. The only inescapable absolutes are centers and origins.

Can originary disciplinary spaces founded on mistakenness, eschewing imperium in imperioambitions, provide useful knowledge, to the center or anyone else? The knowledge gained in such spaces is both knowing that and knowing how, above all, knowing how to enter various spaces and be useful within them. Schools and universities would be more explicitly what they already are, training camps preparing the young to act and improvise within the constraints set up by the articulated social hierarchy. The metalanguage of literacy installs a new imagined possibility, one which would be inconceivable prior to writing: that everyone could, eventually, be led to agree—potentially, on everything. If there is a single reality represented by language, and through the perfection of logical and empirical methods every single claim could be deemed to be either in agreement or disagreement with reality, then there is nothing preventing us from producing a complete map of reality and having that map already here, in potential, contained in the most advanced methods but also in every human mind or soul. But even two people saying exactly the same thing are not completely in agreement, because one says it after the other, or they say it in different contexts, or in response to different questions or exigencies, and with different audiences, different consequences and implications. The physical sciences approximate the production of universally agreed upon statements most closely, which is why the social sciences are so tempted to promote those sciences, at least nominally, as models.

The striving toward universal agreement is propelled by the development of declarative culture as the negation of imperative and ostensive cultures. This is the imperium in imperioof proceduralism, which likewise imagines the possibility of a world completely mapped by declarative sentences—in the case of proceduralism, explicit agreements and regulations promulgated by authorities who are authorized to do so by other explicit agreements or regulations. The fantasy is that the imperative order will be erased, or that we will all be induced to participate in the fiction that that is the case (that inducement would be the only remaining imperative). Even the insistence that one agree with oneself, from moment to moment, from one topic to another, interferes with the effort to hear older imperatives from the center. Declarative culture will always have the tendency toward metalinguistic imperialism, but also opens the possibility of infra-language, a term used by Bruno Latour: “language used by analysts to help them become more attentive to the actor’s own dully developed metalanguage, a reflexive account of what they are saying.” There will always be metalanguage in literate cultures, and the use of infralanguage is to take metalanguage from outside the discourse it regulates and have it circulate within that discourse. The compulsion to agree reflects a desire for anonymous discourse, to say what anyone could and should say; but only someone can point to the center. The Object, the Center, Centrality is indicated in the difference between metalanguage and infralanguage, where the object framed by metalanguage is given an infralinguistic and infradisciplinary originary structure: we see that at one point that thing provided for the organization of a new form of attention.

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